A Short History of Panic Grass
By Barney T. Burns, PhD, Co-founder of Native Seeds/SEARCH
Panic grass, or panicum sonorum, was domesticated in either Arizona or Sonora sometime during the prehistoric period. Evidence of panic grass being grown by the Hohokam Indians has been found in several archaeological excavations in Arizona.
Panic grass plants produce large quantities of very small seeds that occur at the end of panicles, small branches that flare out irregularly from the tops of each of the plant's stocks. The fact that the tiny seeds contain a large amount of lysine, a protein normally or usually found in animal products, is a recent discovery and holds great promise for the future.
The modern distribution or occurrence of panic grass was so limited that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refused to put it on the endangered species list. They believed the grass was extinct, and therefore, not eligible for designation as endangered. One of the last, or perhaps the last, sighting of this rare cultivar was made by Dr. Howard Scott Gentry in the 1930s at the remote Warihio Indian village of Guaseremos, Sonora in far eastern Sonora, Mexico, north of Alamos and close to the Chihuahua state border west of Chinipas, Chihuahua.
In 1980s, the U.S Department of Agriculture, knowing of Dr. Gentry's report, asked Gary Paul Nabhan (one of four NS/S founders) to see if he could collect a viable seed sample of the grass since he was already doing research in Sonora. Gary asked me to act as a driver and guide, as I knew the Alamos area of Sonora. We were accompanied on our search by Tom Sheridan, at that time an anthropology graduate student at the University of Arizona, who was also familiar with Sonora.
We drove in my yellow Chevy Blazer over Sonora's narrow but paved highway to Alamos. At that point, we turned northward on a graded dirt road that cut through Sonora's tropical deciduous forest to the town on San Bernardo made famous by the Dr. Gentry's research. We proceeded north and then east, winding and climbing up to the level of coniferous forests. We were allowed to stay at the Byerly family stone ranch house at Rancho Quemado just west of El Trigo, Sonora. Mr. Byerly helped us secure burros and a local guide. The owner of the burros was too busy to guide us himself, but since our journey to and from the village of Guaseremos was only a sixty-five mile round trip, his twelve-year-old son would serve as the perfect guide and animal handler.
The next morning our guide showed up with our burros. He suggested that we could save time if we took a shortcut into the Arroyo Lemon rather than taking the main trail out El Trigo. We agreed to the shortcut and were soon riding our lurching burros as they clambered from one large boulder to the next down a dry ravine on the south side of Arroyo Lemon which turned out to be 3,000 feet deep. At the bottom of the arroyo were the remains of an old ranching hacienda owned by the rich and powerful Russo family of southern Sonora. We rode downstream past several Warihio Indian farmsteads and were soon joined by a local man named Rene, whom we had met at Rancho Quemado the previous evening. He was going to his family’s ranch, Rancho Pitayvo, to celebrate his birthday with his parents.
We climbed out of the lush bottom of the canyon on its north side and eventually reached the level of the oak forest which sheltered a few pine trees. Reaching Rancho Pitayvo just before sunset, we were surprised that the rancho was home to a large herd of dairy cows being used by Rene’s family to produce hundreds of pounds of white ranch cheese that they flew out of the mountains in a small bush plane for sale in Navajoa, Sonora. Gary still talks about the fabulous, but simple, ranch dinner Rene’s mother prepared for her son’s “North American amigos.”
Early the next morning our twelve-year-old guide helped us saddle our mounts for the ride across the mountain village of Guasaremos. We bade farewell to Rene and his family, thanking them for their outstanding hospitality. At one point, along the narrow trail, we thought we spotted a patch of panic grass. Upon closer examination the plants turned out to be Johnson grass. We finally reached the scattered small farmsteads making up Guasaremos and began asking the astonished Warihio Indian families if anyone had any panic grass seed. Finally, we were directed to a local farmer who had some extra seed that we could purchase. We were ecstatic with our good luck! He persisted in growing this rare cultivar because he could grind up the small seeds and add them to his tamale dough for a tasty and nutritious corn tamale.
We soon left the isolated and truly remote village with its numerous corn fields, many of which were carved out of the forest on sloping forty-degree hillsides. The trail led us back down into the Arroyo Lemon and up its south flank. The final leg of our two-day odyssey was completed in moonlight since sun had long set. We reached the small Mexican town of El Trigo and were warmly greeted by our twelve-year-old guide’s family. They invited us to dine of freshly cooked peach tamales, the best flavored tamales I have ever eaten. It turned out that the owner of the burros had promised his wife to help prepare dozens of the peach tamales and that was why he could not guide us to Guasaremos himself. We walked back to the two-story stone house at Rancho Quemado thanking our lucky stars for such a safe and successful trip.
Panic grass was not extinct! It was one of the rarest of cultivars, but because of the traditions of the Warihio farmers it had persisted for forty years since Dr. Gentry last saw it. Our small sample was delivered to the USDA Seed Bank in Fort Collins, Colorado and eventually was included in Tucson’s NS/S Seed Bank. The potential value of this lysine rich seed is still being evaluated, but its value will surely be great. What a chain of discovery! Dr. Gentry – the USDA – a 1969 Blazer nicknamed the ‘yellow canary’ – an American rancher whose family left North Dakota during World War I – a twelve-year old mountain and barranca cowboy – a family of Mexican cheese makers – an elderly Warihio Indian farmer – and three graduate students from the University of Arizona. This rediscovery of panic grass would have been highly unlikely or even impossible if any one of the chain’s links had been missing.
Besides the USDA grow out of the Nabhan/Sheridan/Burns original collection, NS/S has obtained four or five other collections from four other sources. One collection was actually made in 1976 by R. Aguerre of the University of Sonora from a Warihio local. Eric Powell, an American missionary working among the Warihio, collected panic grass seeds that he shared with NS/S. The most recent panic grass accession was obtained by French Canadian J.B.E. Faubert while visiting Warihio families near San Bernardo, Sonora. He was the prime mover in obtaining Mexican government official tribal recognition for the Warihios. Knowing of Gary’s and my interest in panic grass, Faubert put out the word to his Warihio friends and in 1980 he was able to share another collection of panic grass with the Meals for Millions pre-NS/S Seed Bank created by Gary and Mahina Drees, another founder. Just prior to the actual founding of NS/S, Gary sent the USDA Seed Bank four different collections of Warihio panic grass. He sent them in November of 1982, hoping that sharing them with a second seed bank would ensure that this valuable seed stock would not be lost to the modern world’s growing needs for a variety of different domesticates.
**This article was originally published in the Spring 2011 edition of Seedhead News.